In a new series, Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he spent the last two years calling balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. Read more Cash & Candor here.
We’re two days away from a new year. For those of us looking to atone for our sins from the previous year, that means taking on some new year’s resolutions. And with the 2018 fiscal session fast approaching, I think now is the perfect time for Gov. Asa Hutchinson and our state legislators to consider a few resolutions, too.
Last week, Hutchinson said in an interview with Arkansas Money and Politics that his goal in the new year would be to shrink government and expand the economy. That’s great, and it’s exactly what a Republican politician should say. But for a governor, and lawmakers, facing re-election in 2018, those goals need to expand to include some of our state’s more palpable needs.
Specifically, a reasonable new year’s resolution for Hutchinson and his friends in the state house would be to pay a little more mind to highway funding… or the lack thereof. If we’re lucky, 2018 will be the year our lawmakers stop kicking the can down the poorly-maintained road and come together on some sort of lasting solution.
If you haven’t noticed, our state highways leave much to be desired. They’re perennially listed among the worst in the state; though, a drive through Oklahoma might make you feel grateful.
To bring our roads up to speed, we’ll need some serious dough. According to recent studies, Arkansas has anywhere from $750 million to $1 billion worth of needed repairs to highways and bridges. And the price tag only goes up the longer we wait. Thankfully, through a federal program, the state has access to $200 million worth of our own tax dollars each year for much-needed overlays, repairs or anything else our abysmal roads and bridges may need.
But there’s one catch. The state must put up a $50 million ransom to secure the funding. If we fail to do so, our tax dollars will be distributed to other states that can. To date, we have no sustainable way for consistently allocating our match money.
Lawmakers were given the opportunity to do just that during the 2017 legislative session and in one of several special sessions called by Hutchinson in 2016. But rather than negotiate a long-term fix to what has become a reoccurring issue, lawmakers instead, at Hutchinson’s request, gave us a reprieve.
The legislature, in 2016, approved Hutchinson’s proposal to use surplus funds and returns on state investments to scrap together the $50 million for the following five years. It only took a year for that plan to go stale. Investments proved to be less fruitful and revenues fell short of lofty projections. State lawmakers, who barely cleared the match money in 2017, are again looking for a way to generate those funds for more than a year or two at a time. If they don’t come to a consensus in 2018, they risk leaving $200 million in our own tax dollars on the table.
But they’re not without options. A small, bipartisan group of lawmakers, during the 2016 special session, floated out an idea that would have paved the way (pun intended) for sustainable highway funding that didn’t rely solely on our surplus tax dollars or strong economic growth: a fuel tax. But passing a tax of any kind, regardless of how necessary, takes some political courage in a state like ours. And that proves to be in short supply, especially in an election year.
I get it. Nobody likes taxes, regardless of where it’s collected. But you can’t get something for nothing. And unlike the federal government, Arkansas’ budget has to be balanced. We can’t spend more than we bring in. We can’t operate at a deficit each fiscal year, resulting in massive tax burdens for our children and their children. That’s Washington’s job. So, unless we’re going to do some significant cutting in 2018, lawmakers need a new source of revenue for state highways.
And rather than take from the pot of surplus tax dollars paid in by all working Arkansans, a fuel tax would be collected from anyone who drives on our state highways. That includes truck drivers, who’s heavy hauls do the most damage to the roads. And they’re okay with a fuel tax. The Arkansas Trucking Association gave the proposal a thumbs up back in 2016.
I, like everyone else with a job and bills, hate taxes. But I also hate shoddy highways. I believe a fuel tax is the most viable option we have in fixing a problem that won’t seems to go away. A modest five cent increase to the state’s fuel tax would generate an estimated $100 million over a fiscal year. But our biggest hurdle wouldn’t be in how much the tax would collect, but getting Hutchinson & Co. to even consider it.
In 2016, save for half a dozen lawmakers, no one wanted anything to do with a fuel tax. In 2017, a non-election year, one state representative worked up the nerve to actually file a bill. Had it passed, it would have put the issue on the 2018 ballot. But that effort died in limbo. The bill was never even brought to a vote.
A fuel tax might not be the only or even the best way forward for highway funding. But in 2018, we deserve to see an honest effort put into finding a long-term solution on the part of our governor and state legislators. And that ought to be high on their list of new year’s resolutions. They can only kick the can for so long.